Playtime!

…[O]f all the sights I love in this world –
And there are plenty – very near the top of
the list is this one: dogs without leashes.

– Mary Oliver, Dog Songs

One of the happiest scenes at the shelter where I volunteer is a doggie play group. Normally we’re told to keep our dog walking companions 6 feet apart, never letting them go nose to nose, because although they have been behaviorally assessed as non-aggressive, the stresses of the shelter environment can make them “reactive” (as we say, keeping the term neutral) to other dogs.

But several times a week, professional trainer Beth Brock volunteers her expertise in conducting play sessions for two or more shelter dogs, with the help of her partner, Rick Wilson, and other volunteers.

The group play is hugely important: It gives the dogs a chance to be active, enjoy the companionship of other canines, experience the sensory stimuli of the outdoors, and have a break from confinement in their 4’ x 6’ kennels.

The trainers don’t just bring dogs from the wards and turn them loose in the large exercise yard, however. Beth says that roughly 75% of dogs who have been through the shelter’s behavioral assessment and tested with other dogs do fine the first time, but there are others who may be shyer, or more wary, and need a more gradual introduction.

I observed a playgroup on a crisp, sunny spring day. Beth and Barbara, another volunteer, brought out two dogs on long leashes and let them greet each other. At the first sign of stress the handlers pulled the dogs apart with cheerful, encouraging words, gave them a break, then let them meet again. Beth offered a running commentary on the body language she was seeing. “His posture’s pretty stiff. His hackles are up. He’s not sure about this other guy.” “The other dog’s tail is high and curved – ‘scorpion tail,’ we call it. That shows he’s confident.”

As the session went on, the two dogs got accustomed to each other, and the handlers dropped their leashes. And they were off! Running, playing, rolling over and pinning each other. It was a joy to see them reveling in their new freedom and in romping with their own kind. Sure, we dog walkers give them treats and affection and lots of turns around the large exercise yard – but our leashes restrict them, and we lumbering bipeds can’t possibly equal the speed, the agility and roughhousing that they obviously find so mutually delightful.

After a while these two went back inside, tired and happy and ready for their dinner, and two others got their chance. Their adjustment time was short and sweet, so much so that Beth brought out a third dog. Before long the leashes came off entirely and the dogs were running free, pack animals doing what came naturally and having a great time at it.

Unleashed!

Looks scary to us, but they’re having a ball!

And there are other benefits, too, beyond enjoyment. “Some dogs are completely unsocialized,” Beth says. “Maybe they’ve been tied up in a yard their whole lives. The play groups help tremendously with that.” She told me about two four-month old puppies, Thelma and Louise, found running loose on a busy road. “When they first came here they wouldn’t walk. They were petrified; when you picked them up they’d pee all over you out of fear.” In a play group with a “helper dog,” Penny, the two puppies learned to play with toys and interact with other dogs. “They learned ‘how to dog,’” Beth said, and in the process also discovered that people could be kind and the source of good things like treats and pats. The pups came out of their shells and were both adopted.

When the play sessions were over I asked Beth about the careful management I had witnessed. “It suggests to me that people should be more cautious about dog parks,” I said. “Many people just take their dog into a crowded dog park and turn him loose. Isn’t that risky?”

Beth agreed. “Dog parks can be great for well-socialized dogs who like other dogs and don’t mind sharing, but for others they can be overwhelming. We humans just assume that having a big open space for our dog to run around in with other dogs is a great thing, but this can give us false hope and confidence. Not every dog is friendly. And not every caretaker is skilled at reading body language and behavior.”

And some, I thought, recalling my own past dog park experiences, don’t care or are oblivious if their dog is being a bully toward others.

For the safety of your pet, Beth says, before attempting the dog park he needs to know his name — something that can’t be assumed with a young pup or a newly adopted dog.

She also recommends working on a good recall so that your dog will reliably come to you when you call him. “Practice with a long leash and treats, in different situations and environments.”

Get your dog used to others by having him play together in your or someone else’s fenced yard, or taking a walk with other human/canine friends.

In the dog park, pay attention to your companion (it’s easy to get distracted by conversations with other people, or the latest tweet or message or Facebook post). Observe your and other dogs’ body language and be ready to step in before a situation escalates. And if a fight should break out, never try to grab the dog’s collar, but enlist other people to help you separate the dogs by pulling on their back legs.

With care and training, your dog can safely experience the joy of running unleashed and playing with her own kind, and you will have the satisfaction of enabling her to have something that you simply can’t give her, no matter how boundless your love.

Beth Brock trains dogs in southeastern Tennessee and can be reached at fetchingmanners@gmail.com.

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